The struggle for supremacy: warring states and the first great philosopher

The first thousand years of recorded Chinese history, from about 1200BCE to 200BCE, is a story of consolidation and conquest, largely thanks to the combined impact of rice, silk and iron. The Kings of Shang, and then the Zhou, who took charge in 1046BCE following victory at the Battle of Muye, used the Yellow River as their main corridor of power. They claimed that their power came directly from heaven. They meant it: their style of leadership was symbolised by an axe, usually embellished with hungry smiles and devouring teeth.

In the end, their capital Hào (near the present-day city of Xi'an) was sacked by barbarian invaders, and in 722BCE the Zhou had to move their headquarters further east to Luoyang (in the present-day Henan Province). Central power rapidly fell apart and a series of smaller states, some with rulers calling themselves kings, emerged to fill the gap.

By 500BCE these states had been consolidated into seven major powers, each vying for the prize of a united China, with its promise of almost infinite supplies of food, wealth and power. Over the next 300 years, it was the military struggle for supremacy between these states, known as the Warring States Period, which finally created the platform for uniting all China.

During this period a number of different philosophies evolved, called the "Hundred Schools of Thought". Wise men and thinkers wandered from court to court, advising kings and nobles on how they might live justly, rule wisely and advance the progress of their kingdoms. One such man was Kongzi, later known to the Western world as Confucius. Tradition says he lived from about 551BCE to 479BCE. His legacy lives on in societies across the Far East, from Japan and China to Korea and Vietnam.

Kongzi was a minister of justice in the state of Lu. One day, aged about 55, he decided to quit his job and go on a trek around the kingdoms of northern China to preach his message of the right way to lead a virtuous life and the best way to rule a kingdom. Confucius sought a system for living that could restore unity, because he thought that the world was descending into an abyss of internal power struggles and military confrontations. He taught that obedience, correct behaviour and good etiquette were ways in which order in society could be restored. A good king would set a good example to his people, and good subjects were bound to obey.

What Confucius didn't concern himself with is almost as revealing as what he actually taught. His philosophy has no place for gods, no afterlife, no discussion or consideration of a divine soul or spirit. In a way, Confucius developed the first godless theory of personal and political behaviour. Family loyalty, respect for older people and reverence for the past were his three pillars of social virtue.

A flavour of his philosophy can be captured by some of his most famous sayings. He hated war and confrontation, had a love of history, and was always pragmatic: "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves"; "Study the past as if you would define the future"; "The only constant is change..."

A number of great scholarly works are attributed to Confucius, although it is far from clear whether he actually wrote any of them. For almost 2,000 years Chinese civil servants, lawyers, military officers and other officials were required to study these texts, called the Four Books and Five Classics, in order to qualify to serve the state. This emphasis on education, teaching, conformity and obedience is still a hallmark of the enduring society that is China today.

Confucius's message of order and peace was in danger of being lost in the noise of war and battle that consumed Chinese life until the year 221BCE, when the country was unified by the supreme triumph of the state of Qin. The story of the rise of Qin – from which the name "China" comes – is as bloodcurdling as it is brutal.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
News
A poster by Durham Constabulary
news
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine